20 February 2013

Kenya: Could Hell's Gate Be Heading to Its Deathbed?

Hell's Gate is one of the most visited parks in the country, thanks to the controversial naming of its popular sites.

More than 100,000 tourists visit Hell's Gate National Park to see the picturesque park with awesome scenery.

According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, it's the second smallest park in the country covering 68 square kilometres with diverse geology.

Right from the Devil's Bedroom, Devil's Shower and Hell's Kitchen, the park is home to over 100 species of birds including vultures, Verreaux's Eagles, augur buzzard, and swifts. It is a breeding ground for vultures and eagles. Kenya's geothermal power is sourced here.

Hell's Gate is the only park in the country where tourists can drive, walk and ride on bicycles. It is famed for its annual wheelbarrow race.

Gazetted in 1984, the park which has consistently attracted large numbers of domestic and foreign tourists could soon have its beauty reversed, environmentalists and tour operators warn. This is because more geothermal wells are being sunk by the national power producer, Kengen, in an effort to increase electricity production in the country.

Kengen has embarked on the construction of the largest geothermal project as the country moves to initiate green energy projects to cut its dependence on hydro and thermal power.

The company currently owns and operates two geothermal power stations at Olkaria namely Olkaria I and Olkaria II.

Olkaria IV plant is being put up by a consortium of Japanese firm Toyota Tsusho Corporation and Hyundai Engineering and Construction from South Korea, and is scheduled for completion early next year. But environmentalists are against the project, saying massive destruction of the vegetation would affect wildlife in the park.

"It is saddening that we are witnessing the ongoing geothermal activity in Hell's Gate which violates our national park regulations and is another example of how our parks are becoming the dispersal areas not for wildlife but for development," says Paula Kahumbu who heads WildlifeDirect, a non-governmental organisation providing support to conservationists. "It is a shame that this kind of destruction is going on right in one of Kenya's most important vulture breeding areas".

While not against the production of geothermal in Olkaria, Kahumbu warns that the ongoing human activities at the park could render some birds like the eagle and vultures extinct.

"I am shocked that the developers and KWS do not see the contradiction that geothermal energy development is for this tiny spectacular park," she says, "this could see the end of eagles and vultures whose breeding place is at the park."

She said the government had not released the Environmental Impact Assessment report carried out by the National Environment Management Authority for public scrutiny.

She accused KWS of having approved the drilling of more wells in the park instead of protecting it. "KWS is mandated to manage and protect parks and not expected to approve this kind of exploitation which threatens the very natural resource that Kenyans gave up for public enjoyment."

A visit by the Star recently established that the park is dusty and noisy as heavy vehicles ferried construction materials to Olkaria IV site.

Our team saw movement of heavy machinery and dust covering the park as tour guides said wild animals are no longer easily visible like before. Many trees have been cut down to pave way for new roads. A new tarmac road is being laid to Olkaria IV.

KWS said it is aware of the negative impacts of the project especially on wildlife and birds. "It is true some activities being undertaken in Hell's Gate National Park are having negative impacts on wildlife especially birds," said KWS spokesman Paul Mbugua in an email. "Both Kenya Wildlife Service and Kengen are aware of the matter and are committed to addressing it."

He said the agencies are therefore engaging each other with a view of finding solutions to the problems. "KWS is holding several meetings this week (last week) on the same. I suggest I give you answers to your questions early next week," said Mbugua.

By the time of going to press yesterday, no comment had been received from KWS.

Wildlife (Conservation and Management) Act (Cap 376) prohibits cutting any vegetation in a national park, or clearing, cultivating or breaking up for cultivation any land in a national park.

However, Kengen said it had met all environmental requirements before drilling the wells. "Everything is in order," says Kaara Wainaina, Kengen's corporate communications officer. "Before any project is done we have to consult Nema and present our environmental impact assessment and this has been done in all our projects."

He said to cushion the rising demand for power in the country, Kengen is doing all at its disposal to ensure that the demand which is rising by 10 per cent a year is met.

"We have a memorandum with KWS and Nema," he said.

He said the project is being funded by international organisations like World Bank and Japan International Corporation which shows that the project had been approved by all relevant authorities.

According to the Vision 2030 blueprint, the country has estimated the national peak demand for electricity in the country will be approximately 3,141MW by the year 2014 and approximately 17,000MW by the year 2030.

"There is also a very well thought out plan on how the management of the waste is done," said Kaara. "We did an Environmental Impact Assessment and presented it to Nema who gave us the green light to continue... some of the concerns raised here are what Nema are really concerned about and we factored everything here."

The chairman of Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers Ken Korir says the human activities going on in the park are not good for tourism.

Korir, who is also the lodge manager, Sarova Hotels, says more geothermal wells could have a very negative impact on the park.

"We have to come out and set our priorities right. We are seeing a situation whereby the government is turning a blind eye to environmental degradation. Tourism has been the main foreign exchange earner and if we do not look into this matters well, we will lose our tourism," he said.

Tourism earnings last year was Sh98 billion, according to the Kenya Tourism Board, a figure Korir says could drop significantly if KWS does not reconsider its stand in parks like Hell's Gate.

He says an example is the planned bypass that is set to cut through Lake Nakuru National Park which has been approved by the government in disregard of advice from conservationists.

"There will be a massive migration of birds in Hell's Gate," he says. "What we are yet to understand is how KWS and Nema allowed such construction in the park."

According to him, it would take a long time for the birds and animals to adapt to the noise and the dust in the park.

The Kenya Tourism Board refused to be drawn into the matter, saying it was an issue to be tackled by KWS and Nema.

"KWS and Nema are the best placed to handle this issue," said Kimutai Ng'eno, assistant PR manager at KTB. "I cannot comment on it."

The 140MW geothermal plant is also expected to negatively affect the community living in the area through noise and emissions.

Olkaria geothermal field is subdivided into sectors that include Olkaria East (Olkaria I), Olkaria Northeast (Olkaria II),Olkaria West (Olkaria III) and Olkaria Domes (Olkaria IV) where construction is going on now.

A report obtained by the Star established that Gibb Africa Ltd undertook the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment study for the Olkaria IV Power Station in 2009 and developed a Resettlement Action Plan for people living near the park and was approved by Nema.

Already a 1,700-acre piece of land has been identified to settle people living near domes area in Olkaria and is owned by Kedong Ranch Ltd. The infrastructure to be provided includes access roads, modern houses, a modern school, a social hall, a community water supply system, a cultural centre and churches.

Kahumbu says there is need to examine the engagements between KWS and Kengen and the companies that are operating in Hell's Gate. "We want Nema to take up her role of being the environmental watchdog and conduct a site assessment and blocking any further drilling until the entire debacle is fully investigated," she said.

"We are seeking the original EIA and environmental license to find out if these wells are in compliance with Environmental and Management Co-ordination Act."

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